Why BlackBerry boss must be allowed to buy an NHL franchise

James Balsillie, co-CEO of RIM, has been trying to buy a National Hockey League franchise for a long time. Now in his third effort, this time targeting the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes, he must succeed.

James Balsillie, co-CEO of RIM, doesn't tilt at windmills. He butts them with the hardest part of his skull.

Which, when it comes to the crusty, decaying, worm-infested windmill that is the National Hockey League, is no bad idea at all. Rather a hockeyish gesture, too.

The National Hockey League is about as relevant to U.S. sport as the HGH-free baseball player.

Please try wafting down the street and bellowing about the NHL playoffs, which are currently occurring to a national indifference only rivaled, perhaps, by the interest in Tara Reid's welfare. You will be greeted with both sympathy and a call to the nearest paramedic.

So here comes Mr. Balsillie, the BlackBerry maker, who likes hockey so much that he apparently wanders onto the ice at 5.30 in the morning to hone his stick skills and, who knows, his right hook, with a passionate urge to bring an NHL team to Hamilton, Ontario.

The NHL, whose talent for self-destruction matches that of Michael Vick, doesn't seem to welcome dealing with Mr. Balsillie at all.

Over the last five years, he has tried to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators and the NHL hasn't been fond of the enthusiasm with which he went about those tasks.

Now a team in another picturesque coldbed of hockey, Phoenix, has gone bankrupt. And Mr. Balsillie can taste coyote. For this is the name of the ill-fated Arizona franchise.

Hamilton, Ontario. Home of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. CC Blueberry87/Flickr

Mr. Balsillie seems rather aware that he is not the NHL's first choice for a loving date.

Of his quest to buy an NHL team, he told the Toronto Star: "I spent five years looking for a front door. And you get all this characterization (of me): 'Brass,' 'club rules.'"

Yes, the same sort of thing that denied Mark Cuban a chance to buy the Chicago Cubs.

"I tell you, by complying with the club rules you get 100 per cent denied the very thing you're looking for (...) There was no other team coming to Canada. It wasn't going to happen. There was no chance. Certainly not Hamilton. Guaranteed."

The NHL strangely believes that it is so frightfully important that every US TV channel ought to beg to cover its puck-chasing punchfest. It wants to give the impression that hockey is a US sport. It seems rather reluctant, therefore, to allow for another team in Canada.

Yet most of the players are Canadian. Much of the money is Canadian. And the playoffs are, as I am sure you will have etched onto your nose and kneecaps, currently being aired on Versus. Yes, that is the cable channel that also brings you bull riding.

A court on Tuesday will first have to hear a dispute between the NHL and the Coyotes' current owner as to who has legal control of the team.

But Mr. Balsillie has bid $212 million, a far larger bite than the only other rumored bid of $130 million. He also has created a Website, makeitseven.ca, that is the rallying ground for those who would like to see Canada have a seventh NHL team.

It isn't success that keeps sports franchises alive. It's excitement. In the Bay Area, people will go to watch the often hapless Golden State Warriors to offer the team a little hap simply because the Warriors are peculiarly interesting.

They will go to watch the NHL's San Jose Sharks because they have turned flattering deception into a furiously exciting art form. And, well, because there are few other outlets for active aggression in San Jose.

Similarly, the people of Hamilton, Ontario will lose whatever marbles they might have over their Coyotes. They will worship them, caress them and stroke them like puppies returned from outer space.

As Balsillie himself told the Star: "I'm clearly just a passionate hockey fan."

Oh, and just a note for the dear, wise, chilly executives of the NHL- he knows how to make money.

 

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